Early Years Foundation Stage: No place for men?

by Clarissa Frigerio

Why are there so few men teaching in the early years? I have worked in the profession for almost 9 years, and I was lucky to teach internationally (Italy, USA, and UK). Only once in that time I worked with a man. But this should not have been a surprise, as latest government figures show that only 2-5% of the early years workforce is made up of men (DfE, 2016). The absence of men in the profession is problematic for gender equitable arguments, with gender imbalances in early years making it “women’s work” (Burn and Pratt Adams, 2015) in public discourse. In contrast, a greater presence for men in early years would be a major benefit for representativeness. If more children saw both men and women included in their education and care, gender stereotypes could be tackled from the start, and children to develop a more gender equitable outlook. In this blog I will share some of the reflections and practices that emerged in conversation with five male teachers working in contemporary British early years.

The men I interviewed came from different professional backgrounds, however, they all had previous experiences teaching in primary or secondary school. They were all British, ages between 27-50. They transitioned to early years due to discontent with the prescriptiveness of the National Curriculum. Instead, working in the early years allowed them to explore creative and fun approaches to teaching and learning. One told me:

“you don’t really need to sit down at your desk and follow standard procedures. You have more freedom to create, and you can help children develop confidence, and let them think and reflect”.

Alongside their perceived freedom and creativity, these men appreciated having a real impact on children. They all placed children at the centre of their teaching pedagogy, showing a desire to help them grow and become more independent. They had felt a lack of this aspect when they had taught in primary and secondary. As one of them said,

“in primary, you focus too much on the academic side of teaching, you are focused on targets, and you miss what’s most important, the emotional aspect of working with children”.

Freed by early years to adopt their own pedagogy, concepts of care and love became the main drive in their work, shaping their understanding of childhood and lesson plans. The majority of them stressed that in early years, both teachers and children work together as a family:

“we learn together, we play together, we make friends, and, at times, we also ‘fail’ together, learning from our mistakes”.

From these experiences, one would assume that working in the early years is a blast. Why, then, aren’t more men involved? One of the teachers had a pretty straightforward answer for me: “no boy would ever dream of working in the early years!”. Simply put, none of these men thought that this career was open to men. They all grew up with female teachers in the early years of their lives. One of them, as he enrolled in his teaching qualification, was only given brochures for a BA Primary with QTS. He wanted to work with young children but assumed that there were no courses to teach in early years. In the end, it took him 18 months to switch to a BA in Early Years. Others, struggled to stay in the role due to pressures to get a promotion. According to the government provider survey (2016), female teachers make up 85% of the workforce, but are less represented in leadership roles. Only 70% of the primary headteachers are female, and data shows that females tend to take up their first as middle leaders in primary after 10 years of experience, while men get promoted with only 8 years of experience.

The presence of men in the early years is a huge benefit to both teachers and children. The male teachers I talked with have recognised how their understanding of teaching grew working with young children:

“in the EYFS I understood how children learn, I can almost see how they are developing inside their head, through curiosity and play, and I think most men are missing out on a great learning opportunities”.

Also, these men reflected on how their presence can tackle gender stereotypes within the classroom:

“I can change the perception of what males do or don’t do. You know, sometimes I’m like ‘I’m busy playing with dolls’, and I say it like that. Like it’s normal. And if more people did it, children would accept it as normal”.

This is central to the debate around men in early years. The involvement of men in children’s lives – both at school and at home – should be normalised and welcomed, to support children’s learning and progress. As early years practitioners we all know that a nurturing and safe environment is paramount for children’s learning. This includes how we co-operate with fellow teachers. I argue that raising awareness of male teachers’ work and pedagogical beliefs can only enrich the way we understand early years, and open up valuable discussions about gender perspectives.

Clarissa Frigerio has just completed her PhD at Edge Hill University and works as Programme Delivery Executive at The Scouts Association.

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